Alice Allan Reviews Watching the World: Impressions of Canberra

22 March 2017

‘Ainslie’ asks and answers much of this last question in two deft stanzas, its second half concluding:

But if mythology lingers 
where houses crouch,
its signs have vanished –  
suburbs thicken 
like yellow grass.

The fact that this book is subtitled ‘Impressions of Canberra’ is significant. Webb and Hetherington haven’t set out to represent every single facet of the city, but to sketch particular aspects that are significant to them. Most often, the combination of poetry and imagery evokes Canberra’s quietude, its open spaces and above all, its stillness. ‘Gesture’, the companion poem to Webb’s image of Telstra Tower rising from Black Mountain’s summit, suggests Canberra’s particular brand of tranquility:

The tower become
an insouciant gesture,

a robotic scout
for a future city,

or the letter ‘I’ 
in wild silence.

It’s possible to find a haiku or tanka-like structure here, reflecting the manicured beauty found as easily in Canberra as in a Japanese temple garden. These nods to Japanese poetic forms recur throughout the book, especially when Webb’s images are translated into just two or three lines. The poem ‘Canberra’, for example, simply states: ‘The city of Canberra / dreams of Mount Fuji’, prompting us to consider whether the companion photograph of Mount Ainslie does in fact show a Fuji-like outline.

Plenty of readers will find pleasure in these calm reflections of Canberra, but for others the most enjoyable moments will be when the city’s less than perfect elements peek through, spoiling the smooth exterior most Australians are familiar with. In ‘The Past’, a church community is juxtaposed with a much less sacred world: ‘A jacaranda arcs across a sleep-out / where a teenager yells in childbirth’. Meanwhile, ‘Storage Facility’ reveals a place where ‘Whole lives are betokened / that would frighten a city / if they spilled all at once – ’; and in ‘Conversations’ we have an everyday disappointment as ‘The café was more drab / than he’d remembered’. But while the collection doesn’t shy away from Canberra’s less favourable sides, those moments when the city becomes truly disturbing – the menace of that deserted airport carpark, the bushfire that waits in that long grass – are kept at bay. The balance tips towards what the city offers rather than what it hides.

One of the many accusations levelled at Canberrans is that they are too inward looking, even insular. With Watching the World, Webb and Hetherington show that the complete opposite is actually the case. To be in Canberra is to be oriented outwards, focusing on the world outside the front door, over the back fence and beyond the borders of state and country. As these poetic-photographic pairings show, in the ACT one’s interior life is rarely separate from, and in fact often deeply enmeshed with, these changeable exteriors.

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